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How long can we tolerate the intolerant

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A long time ago there was a town called “Innocence”. It was a small town with a very well knit and cohesive community. The citizens of Innocence believed in “live and let live”. If someone fell sick each member of the community would gather together and help the sickly member out. Innocence had a thriving economy which would attract visitors from far and wide to come and visit them. Many would visit and go back, but over the years some of the visitors started staying back. They fell in love with the place. They fell in love with the values of the town and assimilated with the other citizens like sugar in a bowl of milk.

Then, one fine day a group of visitors called “Chaos” came to the town of Innocence. This group was different. At first, they obeyed the rules of the town. Yes, there were minor skirmishes, but it was nothing that could not be handled or digested by the town. But then there were some visible differences between the members of the group “Chaos” in comparison with the other members of Innocence.

One was for dialogue while the other was not, one believed in free speech, while the other did not. And eventually, over a century the members of the group “Chaos” out-reproduced the other members of the society. At 1st there were some riots in which members of “Chaos” destroyed public property. Then many of their members started joining the police force and became members of the local municipal council.

The rules started changing, they first removed the right to speak freely. One was not allowed to criticise the tenets of the religion of the members of “Chaos” as it would hurt their sentiments. Eventually, by sheer weight of numbers in the council, a law was passed which changed the basic structure of the constitution of Innocence. They were no longer a democracy, a universal dress code was decided for all the men and women in the town. Some food items were banned. The old places of worship which had been there for centuries in the town were broken down and new centres of the religion of the members of “Chaos” were built on them instead. Today 98% of the citizens of the town of Innocence are from the community of “Chaos”. The memories of its past are like that dirty little museum piece that is kept in some corner to remind the current members of the town to never commit that mistake again.

Does this story ring a bell? Was there a town called Innocence in reality? The answer is an obvious no. Were there some visitors called “Chaos”? The answer is again an obvious no. But in spite of the above story being a fiction does this little narration ring a bell somewhere in your head?

The question one needs to ask after analysing the above-mentioned scenario is very simple, should we tolerate the intolerant? When does one say enough is enough? When does unbearable become truly unbearable?

The Vienna born philosopher Karl Popper analyses this very peculiar and sensitive issue in his famous book ‘The Open Society and Its Enemies’, where he says, “Less well known is the paradox of tolerance: Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them. — In this formulation, I do not imply, for instance, that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies; as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression would certainly be unwise. But we should claim the right to suppress them if necessary even by force; for it may easily turn out that they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all argument; they may forbid their followers to listen to rational argument, because it is deceptive, and teach them to answer arguments by the use of their fists or pistols. We should, therefore, claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant.”

Now Popper has always had his fair share of critiques. For example in 1971 the philosopher John Rawls in his book “A Theory of Justice” says “While an intolerant sect does not itself have title to complain of intolerance, its freedom should be restricted only when the tolerant sincerely and with reason believe that their own security and that of the institutions of liberty are in danger.”

Modern Indian society is a work in progress. After a massive struggle where our society struggled and toiled hard, we eventually managed to break the shackles of the tyrannical British empire and managed to establish ourselves as a Plural, Secular and the Democratic Republic. The next 70 years post our independence have been a mixed bag. But if one were to look at it dispassionately we can safely conclude that in spite of some major bumps here and there we have still successfully managed to remain a Democracy. But can we take this status quo for granted? Can we say with relative confidence that India can remain a Plural and the Democratic Republic no matter what?

As of today, Indian society is by and large populated by people who believe in the principles of mutual respect and reciprocity. India is a relatively peaceful nation in spite of the multiple problems that it has. But, there is a multitude of bad ideas that hover around us as we manage to deal with them with the limited toolkits at our disposal. Bad ideas are digestible and liveable only until their adherents remain a minority in the society and the country has sufficient freedom of expression to criticise those bad ideas and a functioning law and order to crush the dissenters if they commit violent acts to force their will upon the larger population around them.

Demography is destiny. India remains tolerant until the people who believe in those ideals remain the larger percentage of the population. So let us ask ourselves some tough questions. Should we tolerate bad ideas? If yes, to what degree should they be tolerated? Should we tolerate the stone pelters in Kashmir? Should we tolerate the hooligans at Azad Maidan who desecrated the Amar Jawan Jyoti? Should we tolerate the Islamic clerics who preach violence in the name of Religion? Should we tolerate the ones who want the balkanization of India? Should we tolerate the ones who kill someone because they ate something that he/she did not like? Should we tolerate the ones who discriminate against someone because of him being from a supposed “lower caste”? Should we tolerate evangelist hate mongers who want to convert you to their religion with all means possible? Should we tolerate the ones who want to jail you because you criticised their religion?

The list of questions can go on forever. There is a fine line between peace and anarchy. And a society stays peaceful until the majority remains in that zone of peace. But the seekers of anarchy are challenging us on a daily basis. They keep on pushing our limits because they know we are tolerant. And we should remain tolerant. But, for us to remain tolerant we have to make sure that the Indian State draws some tangible boundaries.

For any system of governance to remain secular, liberal, plural and democratic it has to satisfy some basic prerequisite conditions. Those are

  1. Law and order: Law and order is a joke in India. All we need to do is just pick up a newspaper and see some news about one group or another taking the law into their hands on a daily basis. “According to the World Bank’s global governance indicators, India fell by eight positions on rule of law (to 100 from 92) over the decade leading up to 2016. This report is released once every two years beginning in the year 1996 and every year since 2003.”
  2. Judiciary: Justice delayed is justice denied. As per this news report, “There are 2,67,73,356 cases pending in various courts of India, according to National Judicial Data Grid statistics, and are rising with each passing day. The minimum average period to complete any trial in India is six years, which tends to increase if the case is dragged to the Supreme Court. Ideally, the accused gets punished after years of trial and by that time either the victim or the accused dies, or so much time passes that the punishment pronounced serves no purpose. “
  3. Free speech: One does not need to be a rocket scientist to know the state of free speech in India. Governments come and go but the state of free speech remains the same. Some ideas are beyond questioning. Some religious texts are allowed to spew hate towards the disbeliever and the heathen, but, if one was to question the same religious texts they will end up in jail. As if the current laws were not enough a few weeks ago The Punjab Assembly unanimously passed a Bill which proposes life imprisonment for the desecration of Guru Granth Sahib, Gita, Quran and Bible.

India today is neither like the town “Innocence” nor is it in the state which the members of “Chaos” desired. We are at a cusp, somewhere in between. But, for India to move towards the direction of “Innocence” it has to make sure it keeps the members of “Chaos” at bay and under control with all the legal means possible.

It does not matter which religion, caste, creed and political outfit one belongs to. If you want India to become something similar to what the members of “Chaos” desired you are not welcome. Beyond a limit, a society cannot afford to tolerate the intolerant. Have we reached that limit? I do not think so, but it is time someone raised some alarm bells. Our forefathers fought long and hard to give us the gift of democracy. Let us cherish that privilege and make sure that it remains the same. Let us all join hands in this journey towards “Innocence” as we reject those members of “Chaos”.

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